WATSONVILLE—Plans by a local grower to transform a small plot of land owned by Watsonville Municipal Airport into an organic farm have come to an abrupt end.
Adrian Mondragon, who owns Urban Organics, says he was evicted from the property in September after he and airport management could not come to terms on several issues. Chief among them, Mondragon says, was an accusation that he was stealing water for another nearby plot of land.
But Mondragon says the dispute was a simple misunderstanding that occurred when newly-hired employees unknowingly used an airport water source to irrigate crops on the adjacent parcel not owned by the airport.
Airport Director Rayvon Williams did not specifically address Mondragon’s allegation but said that his lease explicitly detailed his rights, responsibilities and termination clauses.
Mondragon’s tenancy on the 6-acre property began in 2018, when he signed a lease for $200 per acre, or $1,200 per month. He hoped to grow strawberries, broccoli, peas, cauliflower and several other vegetables for his small business, which has three other growing locations.
But when he began to work the land, he discovered that the soil was full of gravel and boulders that made farming all but impossible.
“That’s where the nightmare began,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘what the hell is this?’”
Mondragon says his tractors were breaking down under the strain of working the land. He told Williams that he wanted to rework the lease agreement because the majority of the land was unfarmable, but he says he was told the lease was already signed and that there would be no alterations.
So he used a 1-acre section of the parcel, a less desirable solution that nevertheless allowed him to start farming. It was not until 2020 that the two parties agreed to alter the lease agreement from 6 acres to 1 acre.
That was not the only issue that arose during the initial lease agreement.
Soon, he learned that there was not enough water pressure for his farm and the nearby driving range under the same water source, a fact that Mondragon says airport management did not tell him when he signed the lease.
He says he lost crops after losing this battle with the driving range and curtailing his water use.
Jumping the Gun
Despite all of this, Mondragon and airport management last year came to an agreement on a two-year lease extension. In an interview with the Pajaronian, both parties said that the renovation of the property, which Mondragon called an “uncut diamond,” would take some time.
“I see the potential, and I see the flaws,” he said in early May 2021. “After some time, as long as the airport and the city are patient with me, I think we can get it there.”
In reality, last year’s press release announcing the new lease agreement was premature. Though the two had come to terms, the deal still needed City Council approval.
Because that agreement never made it to the elected leaders, Mondragon’s tenancy was moved to a ‘holdover’ status, meaning he remained legally but with no lease.
When the airport did not renew his lease, he was given an eviction notice in September.
Williams did not say why the lease was not renewed, or why he was evicted and did not respond to questions about Mondragon’s water use.
As Mondragon was waiting for a new lease, however, Williams told him to go ahead and plant his crops.
This, Mondragon says, was when a mistake occurred that he believes caused his eviction.
Mondragon says that he leased a 5-acre property immediately adjacent to the airport property. That new plot of land had its own water source and allowed Mondragon to place a port-a-potty and garbage bin on site, something that airport management did not allow on the airport property, Mondragon says.
“My original plan was, I needed 6 acres,” he said. “I needed five more, which is what was available next door.”
A recently-hired group of employees that was unaware of the water issues surrounding the two properties used the airport’s water to irrigate the crops on the other property, Mondragon says.
When airport staff discovered this, they contacted Mondragon.
“I understood right away that it was wrong,” he said. “I was unaware it was going on.”
Mondragon says he offered to pay $1,000 for the cost of the water, which the airport determined was $80.
But Mondragon says Williams accused him of stealing water and evicted him, a drastic step that he says throws away roughly four years of work on the property.
“After all the renovation and everything I’ve done to the site and the investments I’ve made, you’re not going to take any of this into consideration,” Mondragon said. “We had a really really good thing going there. I am just a small farmer, and I was on my way up, and the city takes that away from me.”